“But this is what I was taught in school!”

This is not the kind of comment you’d expect to hear from British informants when asked about the acceptability of particular disputed usage items, given the lack of formal grammar teaching in UK schools since the 1960s and 70s. It is, however, a typical comment made by native speakers of Dutch according to Wouter van Wingerden, whose “Maar zo heb ik het geleerd!” De waarheid achter 50 taalkwesties (van Dale, 2017) has just come out.

I’ve known about Wouter’s project for a while, and rushed to my local bookshop as soon as I read about the book’s appearance in Onze Taal, a monthly magazine that deals with all kinds of language issues (always a great read). Wouter used to work for the magazine as a language adviser, and decided to put his experience to good use by writing this book.

But this is not just a usage guide: it is the result of painstaking research including a large-scale  survey in which as many as 17,000 informants participated! And it gives very practical usage advice. The fifty items were carefully selected, and are treated systematically in a single format, each time addressing the following points:

Which of these variants do you ind acceptable? (multiple options)

On which grounds? (a selection is offered) or: Which of the variants do you prefer?

What do the experts say?

What it is all about.

Remember this.

I think the book (which is very readable) is an excellent example of how a prescriptive approach (sound usage advice) can be combined with a descriptive one (basis in an elaborate attitude survey). And in doing so it provides highly valuable data, such as different preferences between Dutch and Flemish native speakers. I also think that if used properly used in Dutch schools (school teachers both make up an important section in the survey population and are approached directly in the book itself), it could give a boost to the teaching of Dutch in The Netherlands (a subject which, for unclear reasons, currently suffers from very low prestige among secondary school children in this country). Congratulations, Wouter van Wingerden, I expect the book will do extremely well. It should, moreover, serve as an example for all those thinking about embarking on a new usage guide project.


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Discourse marker like and the joys of serendipity

Discourse marker like is finding its way into usage guides, as Viktorija Kostadinova shows in her work. None of the usage guides in the HUGE database, all published before 2010, has an entry on like.  But some writers do discuss it, even if only in passing, such as Caroline Taggart in Her Ladyship’s Guide to the Queen’s English (2010), and just now I found another one, entirely by chance (searching for the word like in the database is obviously an impossible job ).

I found the following reference in the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (Morris and Morris, 1975), as in Taggart’s case as part of the discussion of the use of like for as:

In a day when the young use either ‘like’ or ‘you know’ as meaningless punctuation in almost every sentence

So the discourse marker already attracted attention from usage commentators in the 1970s, and the person who commented on it here was George Cornish. I’ve no idea who he was (or what made him mention this particular feature), except that he was one of the panellists invoked by Morris and Morris for discussions about linguistic correctness, which they subsequently quoted in their book.

Source: Pinterest (the word seems to be popular as a tattoo)

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More than th-fronting

I keep on looking for instances of prescriptivism or metalinguistic comments on prescriptive issues in English literature. My call for examples in English Today recently did not produce any more examples unfortunately. The solution? Keep on reading, and even rereading. This summer will go down in my books as my David Lodge summer (last year it was books about classical ballet, the year before that all the Dutch Indian novels by Couperus). And look what I found.

It all started with a site visit of a well-known Dutch consultancy in Utrecht in April this year, which reminded me of David Lodge’s Nice Work, which I then reread. How little things have changed in academic life since the mid-1980s! Not a reason for optimism, I’m afraid. I next read Thinks … and am now half-way through Deaf sentence. Where I found a reference to prescriptivism, and even Lynne Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves!

The protagonist is a linguist this time (not, indeed, someone who knows languages, as recently-turned-deaf Desmond Bates informs his GP, p. 20),  who tries to keep on good terms with his step-son-in-law Peter. Peter is rather in awe of Desmond, “because he thinks you must be silently criticising his English all the time because you’re a Professor of Linguistics”, Desmond’s wife Fred explains. Happens to us all all the time! This made Desmond laugh, “because modern linguistics is almost excessively non-prescriptive”. But his wife was right, he has to admit, since “Peter is from a working-class background, speaks with a perceptible local accent and uses the occasional dialect word”. AND loves “Lynne Truss’s bestselling book on the apostrophe”, which Desmond had hoped to introduce him to, but which Peter uses “as a kind of bible”. Great, thanks, David Lodge, I’ll just keep on rereading and hope to find more.

And if anyone has any more such examples for me, I’d be very grateful!

But to end with a question: Deaf sentence is brilliantly dedicated to all those who translated David Lodge’s novels in the past. With the challenge added to translate the title of this particularly one. Has anyone come across any translations of the novel, or did the challenge prove too great?

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Only 35?

Here’s a UK Guradina newspaper fluff piece for Harold Evans’ new book on writing dos and donts. He seems very confident!

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Pullum: “Strunk simply doesn’t bother to look”

For readers of this blog and those who have followed the debate between prescriptivists and descriptivists closely, it’s hardly surprising to hear that Geoffrey Pullum, Professor of General Linguistics at Edinburgh University, is not particularly fond of William Strunk’s The Elements of Style, to say the least. Pullum has made no secret of his disapproval of the advice provided by Strunk. Describing Strunk’s advice as ranging from “limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense”, Pullum takes a firm stance against The Elements of Style, which, he argues, has enjoyed great popularity on American campuses. (Read his full comments here.)

Now Pullum has taken on Strunk again on The Chronicle of Higher Education. In “Dracula, Strunk, and Correct English Usage, Pullum illustrates Strunk’s “limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense” on the basis of literary evidence found in the usage of Strunk’s christopher_lee_tot_body_p-4623342contemporaries. Bram Stoker’s classic novel Dracula was published in 1897, which was soon to be followed by Strunk’s The Elements of Style published in 1918. Pullum uses example of disputed usages such as sentence-adverbial however to show how Strunk’s proscriptions are merely “personal peeves with no basis in either classic literature like Shakespeare or fine novels of his own time”.

Even though Pullum’s aversion to Strunk’s language advice is not surprising, I am still fascinated by how usage guide writers’ personal preferences can be completely contradictory to contemporary usage. We can find this pattern throughout the usage debate and even today (see Heffer’s attitude towards split infinitives in Tieken-Boon van Ostade & Ebner, 2017). Another proof of how correct usage is used to distinguish speakers. Us vs. them, correct vs. incorrect, intelligent vs. stupid, humans vs. vampires. And the debate goes on…

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Pedant – to pedant

Can pedant be a verb? So it seems. Read more about pedants and pedantry in today’s Guardian online edition. With many thanks to Joan Beal for the link. One question to our readers though: does anyone object to nouns being turned into verbs like this?

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Bryan Garner review

An interesting review of Bryan Garner’s (2016) Modern English Usage has just been posted HERE on Linguist List.

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